Can dealmaker Donald Trump bring lasting peace to the Korean peninsula?
Patrick Ho says Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump’s apparent awareness of mutual red lines over the Korean crisis is a great opportunity for the US president to broker lasting peace, but only if he can work with Beijing
Amid the stand-off on the Korean peninsula, US President Donald Trump hosted an extraordinary White House briefing on North Korea for all 100 senators last week.
In a further show of force, the USS Carl Vinson-led carrier strike group arrived in waters off the Korean peninsula, where it was joined by the USS Michigan, a nuclear guided-missile submarine.
All evidence suggests that Trump is flexing his muscles in preparation for a decisive solution to the Korean nuclear crisis.
Interestingly, a turning point came on April 25, when North Korea did not conduct a widely expected sixth nuclear test on the occasion of its army’s 85th anniversary.
That sent a signal that the country would not cross a red line set by China and the United States. This could be the first step to de-escalating the Korean crisis.
Watch: Is there a red line for Trump on North Korea?
Very often, mainstream media depicts Pyongyang as irrational. Fortunately, however, the majority of policy circles in Washington do not. The regime of Kim Jong-un may appear bizarre, but the Kims are hard-edged rationalists whose actions have always had clear objectives: keeping the family in power, gaining international respect and improving the country’s economy. Among the three, the first trumps everything else.
Pyongyang deeply understands the butterfly effect of drawing first blood on the Korean peninsula: it would force the regime into a life-or-death scenario. At the same time, Washington is equally aware that if it is seen as only considering military options, Pyongyang may well conclude that its regime is under serious threat and strike first.
It is with this clear understanding of their mutual red lines that Pyongyang did not conduct its sixth nuclear test. In an interview two days later, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson tried to reassure Pyongyang that America is neither seeking regime change, nor an accelerated reunification of the Korean peninsula. This will leave the door open for future negotiations.
However, any effective measure on North Korea will require the support and participation of China. In this regard, China’s security concerns cannot be ignored. As such, America’s deployment of its Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) anti-missile system in South Korea is an issue.
Last Thursday, Trump took everyone by surprise by saying that Seoul should foot the US$1 billion bill for the deployment of THAAD. Although National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster defused the situation by reassuring his South Korean counterpart on Sunday that the US will shoulder the costs, as agreed, Trump’s remarks provide a good opportunity for both sides to reconsider the deployment.
As far as the White House is concerned, the deployment of THAAD in South Korea is a military legacy of the Barack Obama administration. Since Trump has decided to put an end to Obama’s policy of “strategic patience” with North Korea and work with China in fostering a non-nuclear Korean peninsula, it would be illogical for him to ignore China’s opposition to THAAD while asking for its help on Pyongyang.
As for Seoul, the decision to deploy THAAD was made by the now-impeached former president Park Geun-hye, under tremendous pressure from the Obama administration. This decision has clearly damaged the trust built over the years between Seoul and Beijing.
The bill for THAAD deployment thus provides Washington, as well as Seoul, with a graceful way of dancing around the issue. If the next South Korean president withdraws from THAAD, it will demonstrate that the new administration holds a different position to Park’s, and no doubt generate enormous goodwill for all parties concerned.
With close collaboration between China and the US, the Korean crisis does have a good chance of being kept under control. The worst-case scenario seems to have been averted, but more challenging negotiations lie ahead. This will be a war without bullets.
It is expected that all parties will try everything to strengthen their bargaining power before or during negotiations.
Washington will continue to display strength by holding more military drills with South Korea and Japan, along with tightening economic sanctions on North Korea. And Pyongyang will try to counter that with more missile tests, as it did last Saturday.
North Korea disrespected the wishes of China & its highly respected President when it launched, though unsuccessfully, a missile today. Bad!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 28, 2017
As long as these actions and reactions do not cross the red lines for either side – that is, North Korea refrains from carrying out its sixth nuclear test and the US does not eliminate the North’s nuclear capabilities – the crisis will remain under control and the door to negotiations will remain open.
The first 100 days of the Trump administration have indicated that the US president may be engaging in what seems to be “madman theory” bargaining – trying to convince Pyongyang that he is irrational enough to strike at all costs should he see no alternative. By gaining the upper hand, it is hoped that Pyongyang will limit its nuclear ambitions during negotiations.
It is a classic game of chicken, where the driver who is willing to act irrationally can gain an edge. Yet the risks of brinkmanship can never be underestimated.
Trump has turned North Korea’s annual military showcase into a crisis, and now the challenge is to turn the crisis into a solution.
If the master dealmaker can work with Beijing to broker a longer peace accord between the Koreas and establish a non-nuclear Korean peninsula, he would be a worthy candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize. A big deal indeed.
Dr Patrick Ho Chi-ping is deputy chairman and secretary general of the China Energy Fund Committee